It often confuses me why religion can’t be treated like any other idea. Nobody gets irritated when I talk about how Firefly is the greatest show ever made (it is), or even more controversial statements like “Gilmore Girls has the best written dialogue on television, or at least did when it was on.” On less flippant subjects, there is usually little in the way of pushback regarding my sexuality, my generally pro-science stance, my opinions on music (yes, it is important in certain circles), or even my fondness for playing with swords in public. There are places for discussion, but there my approach is rarely considered beyond the pale. Not so with religion.
I had originally attributed this to a form of identity politics: that which we associate ourselves with becomes sacred, and religion is where we draw most of what is considered sacrosanct from in modern culture. It’s a denial of who we are to challenge that, and people like being who they are. I’m incredibly proud of the many aspects of myself. I wear those things on my sleeve, open for anybody to see or challenge, ready to discuss in any manner brought to me. I am heavily invested in it.
However, my investment is primarily in myself.
A study done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that most Americans are not particularly serious about their religions. In fact, reading over these numbers, I can’t find a whole lot of trends to really discuss regarding how one views their way as the *only* way and other factors, such as belief in God (side note: I’d like to talk to the 8% of atheists who are “absolutely certain” there is a god just to find out how that’s possible), whether they believe modern culture infringes on their beliefs, or whether their particular holy scripture is the literal word of god. There are some correlations (Mormons tend to be the most conservative, most likely to believe in a real god, etc.,), and some of the numbers are proportionately what you’d expect, but the percentages are all over the place.
So, where does Rick Santorum come from?
Let’s be kinda frank here: his opinions are exactly in line with his faith. We can discuss interpretation all day, but the benefit of Catholicism is that there are people who are supposed to do your interpreting for you. Many Catholics choose to ignore a whole lot of that, but that just means they’re ignoring it, not that Truth in the Catholic tradition is fundamentally different from what the Vatican has laid out. Mormons have a similar problem (hello, Misters Romney and Huntsman), and Protestants are shaped by the church they attend as its a collection of people who disagree on doctrine with each other and everyone else, but not within their own church (i.e. if you disagree with doctrine in a Protestant church, the generally accepted way of resolving it is to start your own church). With that in mind, why doesn’t Rick Santorum simply do what so many Catholics do and ignore the outdated, ignorant, and backward parts of his belief?
And then I read this. The main thrust of the piece is that the GOP field tries to put what are basically religious arguments into secular terms since they know appealing directly to their faith will fall pretty flat with an electorate that is becoming more secular and, even when they’re not, doesn’t want to be thought of as religiously dogmatic.
The more interesting part of the piece, however, is where it argues that Santorum continues to believe these things despite evidence, and distorts actual evidence, not because he is specifically invested in it. He is, but it’s more than simply his faith at stake, it’s his identity and the fate of others. I think Michaelson glosses over a point which is pretty important: his wife’s miscarriage. Michaelson makes a point later in the piece that to an extent, if homosexuality is ok, Rick Santorum’s son died for no reason. There’s no larger plan, no purpose, it just happened. If contraception is fine to use, if the sexual ethics that line up with the catechism aren’t 100% true, then what else isn’t true? Could it be true that there is no heaven? That he may never meet the son he lost?
I can’t help but find that remarkably sad.
That being said, I still cannot use it to exonerate his behavior. There’s no excuse for turning your pain against the nearest available scapegoat, and personal loss should shape ones own life, not impel them to shape the lives of millions of others to meet a specific standard. I feel bad for the guy in a way I didn’t yesterday, but I also can’t excuse the misery he tries to willingly inflict on others because he’s grasped so tightly to a house of cards. If this were a comic book, you’d have the makings of a super villain in the Mr. Freeze tradition.
The worst part is that it is a house of cards. Any thought system that claims to know with certainly Absolute Truth in all areas cannot be a satisfactory way to run one’s life, not only because it precludes changing circumstances and knowledge, but also because it leads inevitably to that reality and any give on any point discredits the entire project.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a perfect example of this. His ongoing crusade against evolution reveals his absolute inability to separate messages, adapt to changing circumstances, or accept that the world doesn’t work the way he wants it to so badly. Take this article, for example:
Most of those who urge a reconciliation of evolution and the Christian faith do so at the most superficial level, without ever acknowledging the near-total transformation of Christian theology that must result if serious minds ask the serious questions and do the serious work of actually thinking seriously.
The impact of evolution on the Christian gospel cannot be reduced to “both an old earth and a loving God.” That just does not represent intellectual honesty. Those who think responsibly about these questions must deal directly with the theological implications…
Fred Clark approaches this subject nicely:
And when that happens, it causes people to lose their faith. Not because their faith was weak and not because they were vainly chasing intellectual acclaim, but because Al Mohler or someone like him had taught them that belief in Jesus Christ was indivisible from some other belief that could not withstand testing. Taught to regard such things as inseparable, once they encounter the evidence disproving that superstition, they do as they were taught and jettison belief in Christ as well. They were taught that their faith must be bound up with folderol. And when that folderol falls apart — as folderol always will — it takes their faith with it.
Rick Santorum needs to believe that gays are the cause of every problem in America. He needs to believe that contraception makes God hate us. He needs to cringe whenever somebody even hints that they are greater than god or that there’s nothing to be greater than lest they be immediately eaten to death by worms in front of him. If he doesn’t, that makes all of the pain real, and Rick Santorum is not ready to deal with that pain, so he’ll fight it tooth and nail and literally to hell with anybody who stands in his way.
This is not the story of a man who has suffered and is attempting to triumph. This is the story of somebody who must have these beliefs, no matter how terrible, hateful, or despicable they are, because if you take any one of them away, what are you left with? What you are left with is a bitter, sad little man who lashes out at anything that might put doubt into his mind because that doubt is psychologically fatal. What you’re left with is a father who can’t get revenge on god, so he seeks it elsewhere. What you’re left with is a super villain, and I shudder to think what happens if the better Batmans of our nature don’t channel our own hurt into more constructive ideas.